First Things…


On my way to a midlife English MA, an undergraduate leveling course in linguistics introduced me to not only one more excellent teacher (Dr. Livingston, who had made a long ago professional/academic jump from math to English Lit and would subsequently retire to mind his cattle, his grandkids, and his bass fishing), but to the previously unguessed wonders and delights of other tongues.

I consider myself blessed to be able to read Shakespeare and Sam Clemens in the original. But there are concepts unique to every language, and finding the one that the Hurons have embodied in a single word was like recovering a treasure lost in a previous life.

Orenda: a song that asks without demanding, hopes without begging, prays without beseeching, empowers the singer without disfiguring and encumbering the soul with hubris. It is a humble expectation balanced by a fear tempered by a great determination. What writer could do without all of that condensed and crystalized into one shimmering word? Orenda.

With that in mind, I am offering here stanzas of a song composed from the odd scraps and gleanings of a life that began in the year when the B52 heavy bomber made its first test flight. For better or worse, my hands and head have gotten into more than a few odd places. The result has been some practical knowledge and a mixed bag of experience re: matters as large as death and fate and as pleasantly trivial as a paper party hat.

In any case–enjoy the song.

LMJ, Sept. 8, 2014

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Space Case

The urge to claim yourself by claiming an enclosed private space is something we all do to a point; it’s a landmark day when you buy a house—or just stop having to share a room with a sibling by getting a room of your own.  Having a situation that excludes both the elements and unwanted guests of all species is a psychic need for most of us and a practical necessity for anyone whose peace of mind and work require quiet and absolute non-interference.

The apropos horror story that resonates with many more than those who write is the one c. 1834 that concerns Thomas Carlyle and his good buddy John Stuart Mill.  Mill got bogged down in writing projects, couldn’t meet a publisher’s deadline, and handed the contract for a three-part history of the French Revolution to Carlyle, who dug in, worked long and hard, finished the manuscript of the first volume, and sent if off to Mill. (This was, mind you, the only copy.) Mill left the manuscript in his study when he stepped out for a moment, and the maid who came in to poke up the fire needed something to start the fire with…

(After no doubt contemplating both murder and suicide, Carlyle re-wrote the whole thing from memory and with the help of friends.  The completed set became a best-seller, but the story of an author’s worst nightmare resonates.  This pic depicting the awful moment is from 19th century Japan.)

Anyway, it’s important to stake out one’s space, however unexalted.  My studio is a simple box of a thing, a no-frills barn both comfy and cluttered, and I anticipate no beseeching calls from Architectural Digest wanting a look-see.  Still, I admire and enjoy the more elaborate boxes that satisfy others, whether to design and build or inhabit.  I have a non-acquisitive weakness for funky old houses, and I take note when a fine specimen gets a makeover instead of a fatal encounter with a bulldozer.

This one was built, so I was told, most of a century ago.  The generous porch and the high ceilings bespeak a time before AC, when summer evenings were spent outside in porch springs and rocking chairs, and the conversations were lubricated with tall glasses of sweet tea and lemonade.  Over quite a few weeks, I watched as the house was lifted off the pier and beam foundation that supported it, lowered onto a new concrete foundation, and then stripped down to its bones.

The old met the new in interesting stages.  Broken and rotted studs and connectors were replaced and sheets of modern insulation were tacked over the ancient 2x4s.  Modern, energy efficient windows replaced the more graceful originals, and the high-peaked attic space was filled with the constituent parts of a state of the art central AC system.  A garage and an open-air kitchen pavilion (below left) were added.

I learned that all this was done to create an annex for the small museum just across the street.  The museum memorializes Gone With the Wind—the movie more than the book, apparently.  I suppose I’ll have to check it out at some point, while maintaining a diplomatic silence at critical points; my Southern ancestry was liberally informed, early on, by an inclination to revere facts over popular mythologies, regardless of the likelihood of blow-back from some of my more unreconstructed kinfolk.

Still, like Rhett Butler, I know that the truth has not and could never set me fully free of my roots. Whether those roots manifest in my seasonal yearning for a good pecan pie or an occasional glance back to long ago evenings spent on a favorite great-aunt’s pine and hydrangea shaded porch as lightning bugs spangled the Louisiana woods, they encompass things that I can only cherish, regardless of the freight attached.

My great-aunt’s house is probably long gone, taking with it all the memories and psychic energies that lives project into the spaces they long occupy.  This house, reborn in the 21st century, has been given a reprieve.  It will see weddings and book club meetings and Christmas parties and all the uniquely human activities that make an enclosed space sacred even when nominally secular.  Maybe it will become, again, someone’s home.  It is alive once more, once more a maker and repository and archive of memories.

LMJ 12.19.17

PS–Merry Christmas

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One of Seven

It is a gleeful and malicious witch’s cackle—a Halloween sound effect out of place in the doldrums of a hot summer day:  “Hee Hee Hee!  Yer old! You gotta do jest like me and grab yer leg ta git in!”

I look up to see a weathered, semi-toothless female face beneath an untidy nimbus of dull white hair.  Her eyes are glowing with spiteful pleasure as she watches me struggle to avoid hitting the side of her very large truck with the door of my very small one.  She’s parked about five inches over the line, and things aren’t much better on the other side—whoever parked the giant SUV on my passenger side also cut it too damn close, and hauling everything off the seat so I could slither across it to get behind the wheel—multiple books, a full backpack, and a notebook full of sketches–would be no less a hassle than trying to wedge myself around the driver’s side door.

Envy in its ultimate, deadliest expression–murder.  The Biblical tale of Cain and Abel,  courtesy of Bartalomeo Manfridi, c. 1600.

So I spent an awkward several moments trying to wriggle sideways into the driver’s seat.  After barely getting inside the door and sliding my butt into an iffy perch on the outer edge of the seat, I realized that I had no room to raise my knees high enough to get my feet onto the floor boards.  So I grabbed my pants legs to finish hauling myself in—thereby bringing nasty joy to the person whose truck I was trying not to damage.

There’s probably a long, much truncated, and very specific German word for the particular satisfaction that that old gal got out of my situation.  Schadenfreude comes to mind—the shameful pleasure that all of us feel at some point at the sight of someone else’s misfortune.  But there was more to it than that.

Somehow, I think she was one of those people I’ve only occasionally, actually seen, who sneak a copy of the National Enquirer into the grocery cart just before they check out with a loaf of white bread, a pack of non-deli bologna, and a six-pack of the cheapest lite beer.  But I know those people must exist in considerable numbers; along with such staid, innocuous pleasures as Ophra Magazine, Southern Living, and Better Homes and Gardens, there are racks of screamingly garish tabloids at most grocery cash registers, and they are replenished regularly while print journalism in its more respectable forms isn’t doing well in the digital age.  The National Enquirer, The National Observer, The National Examiner– they’re pretty interchangeable in terms of name, appearance, content—and appeal.  They appeal, primarily, to envy.

They are the go-to for those who revel in the misfortunes of the successful, the powerful, the famous, the talented,  and the beautiful as a counterweight to their own too-ordinary, ineffectual and anonymous lives and selves.  It’s no accident that when their photos grace the covers of these rags, the handsomest men and the most beautiful women look like hell.  And when the famous relationships hit the emotional rocks upon which any coupling can founder, the details are picked over with all the gleeful delicacy of a flock of vultures squabbling over a zebra carcass.  The vultures rejoice when the beautiful are fallen.

Envy is one of The Seven Deadly Sins—a concept that even Protestants embrace, although Catholicism seems to have standardized the list.  Pride, sloth, gluttony, anger, lust, and avarice, along with envy, do pretty much cover and describe the worst of human behavior—although I’ve often thought that some additions could be made.  Cowardice and cruelty strike me as serious contenders for eight and nine with willful stupidity a definite tenth.  But whatever the case, I have always found envy puzzling as well as ugly, since it rests on an impossibility.

Wanting to have or be what someone else essentially has or is involves an impossible wish.  It just isn’t possible, outside the movies, the pages of comic books,  and certain literary genres, to trade part or all of your own life and/or self for someone else’s life or self.  The envious hatred that the plain feel for the pretty, or the low born for the pedigreed, is irrational and comic, pitiable, and absurd. Ultimately, frustratingly, enragingly impossible.

It’s my guess that that old woman who got such a kick out of the problem she’d caused me with her sloppy parking knew that her age and mine weren’t much apart.  But her approach to aging and mine are markedly different, and she was stung by the contrast.

I’m not a gym rat, and I certainly weigh more than I did when I got out of high school.  But I do, dutifully, get on the weights and into a serious work out on a regular basis. The grey in my hair is as much as I’m likely to get any time soon due to my heredity, but I’m fine with it–always thought it was a good look.  Even as I pinch pennies and look for deals on the tools and equipment that I need to become at last a fully functional working artist, I know that the most critical and irreplaceable tool I’ve got is the one that I always want to shave five pounds off of.  And despite time and wear, it’s still a pretty good piece of gear– the temple of my soul, the seat of my mind, the doorway to all perceptions.  The fact that it never promised me a place on the catwalk or the runway or the cover of Vogue never seemed to me a serious cause for regret, considering the ephemeral nature of female beauty–and the stubborn longevity of thoughts and words and ideas.

How far the road will stretch for me I cannot know.  But whatever burdens I will carry on it of hope or loss, need or ambition, this one of the seven I will especially refuse, whether to harbor or to suffer.  Getting what I want will be hard enough.  Wanting the impossible is pointless–and this particular impossible is especially ugly, especially pointless, especially nasty and vile.

L.M.Johnson 10.25.17



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The Naming of Names

Wisteria sinensis. A nice way to be remembered. See below for further details.

Helianthus maximiliani. The Maximilian Sunflower.

Spring is the classic time for wildflowers.  In Texas, even in an off year, the wealth of native flowers is Fat City for bees and butterflies and a heady treat to multiple human senses. There are cotton candy mounds of pink primroses, flagrantly crimson-red spikes of Indian paintbrush, those iconic sapphire swaths of the bluebonnet—and a few hundred assorted others.  On a still spring night, their collective scent is something that I have occasionally fantasized about distilling into a perfume that would give Chanel a run for its money.

One Maximilian w/ bee. An eternal partnership.

But the wildflowers of autumn are their own special pleasure; they stand out as a last summer hurrah in a landscape going sere and preparing for winter. Now that the Autumn solstice has brought cooler nights, days with a crisp edge, and the promise of wild-voiced migrating geese, it has also brought golden stands of Maximilian Sunflowers.

Prince Maximilian. c.1830.

The Maximilian Sunflower bears the name of the man who officially first described it.  In the early 19th century, Prince Maximilian of Weid– German noble, naturalist and botanist– came to the American West and looked with a scientist’s particular joy upon a flower that plenty of people—passing Comanches among them—had surely seen.  But he did more than look—he saw, he examined, he described.  And for that, he achieved the unique immortality bestowed upon those favored few who have a living thing named after them.

People who build monuments to themselves don’t seem to do much better with the immortality thing than the rest of us. Ask Saddam H.

The human quest to defeat oblivion by hanging one’s name on something tangible—and preferably large—is arguably one of the big drivers behind civilization.  For better or worse, there are many among us who like seeing themselves referenced in monuments, in eponymously named edifices, in the titles of sporting events.  The pyramid started small and got big as each builder tried to outdo his predecessors.  At the moment, the owner of a self-named building that sits upon real estate too pricey for even him to own is apparently dreaming of seeing his name stretched in very large letters across the nation’s southern boundary, ostensibly for the sake of national security.  Bowl games are a roll call of the corporations we are now assured can be seen as human entities.

Dr. Caspar Wistar, 1761-1818.

But the mighty and the self-important are no match for the gear shifts of time, public opinion, and the elements.  As Percy Shelly knew, the universe has a habit of curtailing such flights of vanity, of pulling the most massive of human egos up short.  Dust we are and dust we will be again, saith the Reaper.

A nice specimen of a Golden Sebright rooster–living monument to Sir John Saunders Sebright (English, 19th cent.), 7th Sebright Baronet.

The tenacity of life offers a unique out. Ozymandias is forgotten, but the 7th Baronet of Sebright lives on in the  pretty chickens named for him, the Silver and Golden Sebrights. Dr. Caspar Wistar, the 18th century American physician, is believed memorialized in the wisteria, that gloriously rampant spring flowering vine. George Wilhelm Steller (German, 1709-1746) has a few creatures named for him, including his sea eagle—and Prince Maximilian has his sunflower.

Steller’s gloriously badass sea eagle, Haliacetus pelagicus. To be found in the vicinity of the Bering Sea.

Their golden spikes are a graceful exclamation point in this early Autumn, in the time for thinking about mortality, of adding up, of tallying the ledger of gain and loss and possibilities realized or blown.  In the face of Autumn’s inevitable sadness, they are a joyous reminder that the meek do indeed inherit the earth where the naming of names is concerned; that immortality can come more lastingly to the humble than the fleetingly famous; that life itself is the ultimate monument to life.

LM Johnson 10.12.17

The Max in all its golden glory. A great way to say goodbye to a year.



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His name—to me—is Mr. Black.  Although he’s really more mahogany than black, and will very likely never answer to any name that I or any human could give him.

He’s a reminder that cats, unlike dogs, are less symbionts than commensalists.  The consensus among the experts is that while dogs are the result of a conscious reworking of the wolf’s genome by humans, the cat came into the human sphere as a sort of freelance guest worker.  In return for services voluntarily rendered in the area of pest control, cats were allowed free room and board by grateful humans, who probably also got a kick out of sharing their space with a pint-sized version of the really big kitties that scared them spitless.

Wild and starving, Mr. Black wandered into my life about half a year ago.  The curb service that I extend to my outdoor cats will dependably attract its share of hangers on—it’s amazing how fast and how big a possum will grow on a diet of cat food.   Mr. Black was initially a ragged shadow hanging on the edge of my vision, ready to run and hide at so much as a glance.   He had not survived by being incautious—and it ain’t paranoia when they really are out to get you.

They, in this case, included coyotes, great horned owls, dogs with bad attitudes, country boys in speeding pickups, and boys in general when armed with small caliber firearms.  And of course, other tomcats—the testosterone fueled fighting that normally punctuates a free-range tom’s existence is a ready source of infectious disease (feline HIV, usually spread by the exchange of infected saliva, has killed many in this neighborhood over the years) and the injuries that infect so readily and do so often prove fatal.  A wild tomcat’s life is necessarily hazardous and normally brief—three to five years on the average, according to one stat.  Mr. Black’s chances of making the average went down sharply a few months after he showed up.

He appeared one morning walking awkwardly on three legs.   One front paw, badly swollen, was held aloft, and as he waited to be fed, he eyed me with more than his usual hair-trigger fear.  He was in serious pain squared by more than his usual wild-kitty concerns about staying  ahead of the opposition—hard enough to do when you’ve got four good feet under you, but being down to three had reduced his survival chances exponentially, and he knew it.

Having been volunteered by my karma to be responsible, I was presented with a situation that seems at times the quintessence of adulthood’s many built-in pitfalls.  The adult ability to see and pity a need, when paired with the equally adult desire to address that need, is a guaranteed source of frustration for those who truly wish to own their adulthood.  Because one of the lessons that comes hard is that whatever your own opinion of someone else’s situation, that someone else, unless a child, is the one whose opinion and choice must matter the most.   i.e., you can’t help someone against their will, even if it tears a hole in you to witness their suffering.

Before this, Mr. Black had reached the point of allowing me to approach within a foot or so.  But he would still hiss a warning even as I offered him a meal.  So there was no chance now of getting hands on, of touching that damaged paw in the hope of healing it.  I could only lace cans of tuna fish with antibiotics, see that he ate them, and stand back, hoping for the best.

Sometimes, that works out.

He showed up two weeks ago, for the first time all summer, walking on all four.  The halting, lop-sided, rocking horse limp was gone.  Graceful again, he stared at me with moon-yellow eyes that were still distant, still uncertain, still fearful.  But he was whole again, for as long as the uncertainties of a tomcat’s life would permit.  And for that moment, we were both satisfied with the hand that fate had dealt us.

LM Johnson 9.1.17


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Wild Things

The first day of spring has arrived, but calendars are, after all, a human concept.  Weeks ago, the great celestial clock that slows in the autumn into long nights and abbreviated days had already begun the seasonal reset into warmth and sunlight.  A lot of things are blooming, and this includes a patch of the front yard that is now a solid mat of dandelions.

Dandelions fill serious lawn freaks with horror.  Spring is the time when even the most uninspired yard bird will get the itch to hit the garden shop at Home Depot, once more convinced that enough bags of fertilizer and grass seed will make this the Year of the Perfect Lawn.  And there is something in the rakish golden frivolity of the dandelion, with its tousled petals and ragged leaves and ethereal poofs of winged seeds, that seems specifically designed to mock that ambition.  The dandelion, in certain quarters, is seen as something out of the Book of Revelation—a sneaky floral anti-Christ deserving of the fatal exorcism rendered with the holy implements of garden spade and trowel and the sacrament of broad leaf weed killer.

This is a very nice botanical print of Taraxacum officinale, the common wild dandelion. There are, however domestic varieties.

All of that is apt to be an odd notion to anyone whose childhood self ever picked and then blew apart a dandelion fuzz.  There is something in the act of scattering parachuted dandelion seeds to the wind that belongs in that private, eternal childhood of memory in which summer evenings spent chasing fireflies are preserved along with the clear autumn day on which a ramble through a cornfield laid low by the first frost revealed the glowing orange treasure of ripe pumpkins.

Up north, in the Ray Bradbury country of Illinois, the dandelion was the first flower to show up after Easter baskets had been emptied of eggs and chocolate bunnies.  We picked our baskets full, my older sister and I, not knowing until years later that we had the essential makings of something I’ve yet to try,  dandelion wine.  The flowers, once picked, folded up by early afternoon, nevermore to open; like so many wild flowers, dandelions are ephemeral things. The flowers that open at sunrise, even if ungathered, will be closed by mid-day, as if an accidental scattering of gold coins has been retrieved by thrifty leprechauns.   At the end of the day, a small forest of globular seed heads will tower over the rosettes of shaggy leaves, awaiting the night winds that will send them on their way.

The dandelion—from the French for lion’s tooth—is not a flower for snobs or those addicted to an unchallenged orderliness.  It is a proper fleur savage (also French, for wild flower).  Quite democratic in its insistence on growing where the hell it pleases, a delight for those who appreciated verve and initiative, and a tasty fodder for assorted pollinators, including our endangered honeybee population.   The dainty, lovely, well-mannered violet (also so inexplicably loathed by grass lovers) embodies the concepts of sweet and shy. But the dandelion is a reminder that there is room and need for exuberance and enterprise and untidiness, especially in the Spring, when the world is remaking itself yet again, in the face of all fears and loses.

–LMJ 3.23.17

Dandelion Wine–a recipe found on line, author unknown, but thank you anyway.

  • 2 qts dandelion flowers
  • 3 lbs granulated sugar
  • 4 oranges
  • 1 gallon water
  • yeast and nutrient


This is the traditional “Midday Dandelion Wine” of old, named because the flowers must be picked at midday when they are fully open. Pick the flowers and bring into the kitchen. Set one gallon of water to boil. While it heats up to a boil, remove as much of the green material from the flower heads as possible (the original recipe calls for two quarts of petals only, but this will work as long as you end up with two quarts of prepared flowers). Pour the boiling water over the flowers, cover with cloth, and leave to steep for two days. Do not exceed two days. Pour the mixture back into a pot and bring to a boil. Add the peelings from the four oranges (again, no white pith) and boil for ten minutes. Strain through a muslin cloth or bag onto a crock or plastic pail containing the sugar, stirring to dissolve. When cool, add the juice of the oranges, the yeast and yeast nutrient. Pour into secondary fermentation vessel, fit fermentation trap, and allow to ferment completely. Rack and bottle when wine clears and again when no more lees form for 60 days. Allow it to age six months in the bottle before tasting, but a year will improve it vastly. This wine has less body than the first recipe produces, but every bit as much flavor (some say more!).


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Comfort Food

The annual mega-caloric holiday baking frenzy is over and I am left with one fruitcake, a few extra pounds, and half a jar of shelled pecans.

Every year, I swear that this will be the last time I send seasonal goodies to the several people who don’t appreciate my time and efforts (there are, of course, many more who absolutely do, and I’ll probably be struggling to get out those final pans of cookies and fruitcakes on my deathbed).  But like a migrating wildebeest, I seem unable to break from the ancestral path.  The holidays activate my normally dormant baking gene, and now, a month into the New Year, those lingering pecans still beckon, although from a slightly different quarter.  They whisper that they have it in them to make one more pecan pie.pecan jar

Pecan pie is a quintessential expression of Southern holiday cheer, with a calorie count roughly equivalent to the molecular density of a neutron star. For that reason, I normally forgo the pleasure in favor of lighter Southern treats, like blackberry cobbler.  But the discovery of a new recipe—the latest one features a hit of bourbon—can lower my resistance dangerously.  And the territory ahead is fraught with more than subsequent, unpleasant moments with the bathroom scales.  Personal history is where you find it—even unexpectedly in a back issue of Southern Living.

Pecan pie was one of the holiday necessities of my younger years.  My dad, a man of monastically simple tastes (The only jewelry he ever wore besides his wedding band were several sets of steel cuff-link and tie bar sets.  And to my mother’s distress, he insisted on swapping the initial yellow gold wedding ring for one in white gold.), had a strange passion for something as unashamedly, exuberantly decadent as pecan pie.  When the finish of thirty years in uniform wandered him and us, a wife and two daughters, back to San Antonio and the purchase of a first house, one non-negotiable criteria for said house was the presence of pecan trees.

For those who lack the time, there is a decent commercial alternative.  At least in certain parts of Texas.

For those who lack the time, there is a decent commercial alternative. At least in certain parts of Texas.

We wound up in a modest single-story wood frame with two enormous pecan trees in the back yard.  They were a domestic variety that produced a yearly crop of large, thin shelled nuts.  Only later would I discover the rich joys of the much smaller, hard-shelled native pecans that set fruit biannually and make up in flavor for what they lack in ease of cracking (the Chinese have lately developed a taste for pecans, and their demand for large, uniform, paper shelled nuts dispensable from a vending machine might, unchecked, hazard the survival of the old ancestral trees.  So I’ve heard.).

A lot of pecan pies rose from that yearly bounty, and I ate my share, to the detriment of my adolescent waistline.  But it happened only in my teenage years that I considered the strangeness of my dad’s taste for something that his kinfolk in places like Kentucky and Tennessee were unlikely to have known.  The pecan is warmth loving, one of the iconic trees of the Deep South; pecan pie wouldn’t likely have figured on the holiday menu anywhere that gets regular snow.

I’m not sure exactly when, but my mother, a Louisiana girl, one day solved the mystery with the sort of casual revelation that comes with a delayed fuse, and is liable to explode in many unexpected directions.

She explained that only months after their marriage (c. 1948), my father had inexplicably asked her to bake him a pecan pie. Slightly mystified, she had done so; he had tasted the result, and been instantly hooked.  But only later had he clarified his request, telling her one of the few stories he ever would of his time as a POW, how one of his fellow prisoners had talked and talked as he had starved with everyone else about his mama’s pecan pie.  Starving men spend a lot of time talking about food.

My mother never learned the name or fate of that southern boy.  But after four decades of marriage, before Dad lapsed into the coma that would end three days later with his death, a dam broke.  So I learned after, names and stories never spoken in all those years tumbled out, racing against a clock that was winding down to zero.

Perhaps the name of that boy and the rest of the story were there amongst all the accumulated debris of pain and memory.  Perhaps not.  Mom listened in bewilderment, wrung out with years of care-giving, feeling that mix of relief and pity and impending loss that made it impossible to catch any of it as it floated by and vanished.

So I am left with a mystery and a jar of pecans and an untried recipe.  Calorie count aside, I do not make pecan pie lightly.

LMJ 2.6.17

PS: courtesy of Southern Living and Ms. Sylvia Sublialdea, HUNGRY.TEXAN.COM–Utterly Deadly Southern Pecan Pie

8-10 servings

1/2 (14.1oz) package refrigerated pie crusts / 1T powdered sugar/4 lg eggs/ 1 1/2 c firmly packed light brown sugar/1/2 c butter melted and cooled to room temp/1/2 c granulated sugar/1/2 c chopped pecans/2 T all purpose flour/ 2 T milk/1 1/2 T bourbon/1 1/2 c pecan halves

Preheat oven to 325 F.  Fit pie crust into 10 in cast iron skillet. Sprinkle crust with powdered sugar.  Whisk eggs in lg bowl until foamy.  Whisk in brown sugar and next 6 ingredients.  Pour mix into pie crust and top w/ pecan halves.  Bake at 325 F for 30 min.  Reduce oven temp to 300 F and bake 3o min.  Turn oven off and let pie stand in oven with door closed for 3 hr.

( Suggestion {mine} : After eating, hit the gym extra hard and avoid the scales for a week.)


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Fun and Games

group-picAs often happens now, the conversation flowed around me.  The others in it were all young enough to be my children or grandchildren, but I was no one’s kin.  When courtesy requires, the young will make token attempts to include their own immediate ancestors in their circle.  But that effort has always had its limits; and those limits have been stretched considerably of late by the technology that has narrowed and condensed generational frames of reference into microcosms of experience as fleeting as a Text or a Tweet.

But still, unoffended, I listened.  Writers always listen.  For us, listening is the equivalent of filter feeding.  Like sperm whales straining the water for plankton, those of us who build and obsess with the written world are always listening for the turn of a phrase, the lilt of a voice, the idea or anecdote that will instruct, enlighten, or intrigue—or, best of all, explode into the image or thought that seeds a story.

So I listened as the discourse turned to childhood games.  There was talk from one child of the 80s about playing Star Wars.  The conversation turned inevitably to technological advancements in the age old enterprise of conning one’s parents re: homework assignments. General acclaim in this area went to a Millennial, now a lawyer, who was never in several years caught reshuffling and recycling a set of math assignments via the use of what I gathered was an online program intended to allow parents to better monitor their offspring’s productivity in that area…

The stories went back and forth. I listened, said nothing, and did my own remembering.

The children I played with—the child I was– played War.


Okinawa is a small place. Even 60 years ago, when this pic was taken, it was possible to get most of it, shooting south to north.

It was the war that our fathers had lately fought.  Very lately, now that I think of it.

The Battle of Okinawa began on April 1, 1945, and lasted for 82 mortal days.  American casualties ran to around 45,000.  The Japanese did worse–77,000 plus –and the Okinawans worst of all–between 50,000 and 150,000 dead, mostly non-combatants and reluctant draftees.   My Air Force father pulled a three-year hitch in Okinawa in the late 50s, and we Baby Boomers, knowing little of history and understanding less, played our games across the still healing battlefield of an island with the approximate landmass of LA.

In retrospect, I don’t know what my parents–any of our parents– were thinking when they let us loose there.  The sub-tropical forests and the deep swards of head-high habu grass (named for its frequent inhabitant, a really badass venomous snake called the habu), were full of unexploded ordnance, abandoned bunkers, shell holes, and other unhealthy possibilities.  There were empty Okinawan tombs as big as small houses, each such desecration a testament to the horrors inflicted on a gentle people who revere their ancestors, and would never willingly neglect them.


Sea Cave. Original gouache miniature by LM Johnson, 10.09.16

It was a playground surreal in its significance.  Once, on one of our normal family excursions to the beach, I wondered off alone and crawled into a low sea cave whose last occupants remained there.  At least, their skeletons did.  The floor was strewn with human bones.  I suppose these were the remains of Japanese soldiers.  The Okinawan dead would have been lovingly retrieved and buried by living kin or reverent countrymen.  The Japanese dead, I suspect, would have gotten no such regard from the people upon whom Japanese megalomania had invited the disaster of war—a concept, so I’ve heard, that doesn’t exist in the Okinawan language.

This might have been the same strange beach where I found myself tagging beside my father, looking at the countless small bits of oxidized metal that the shallow waves washed at our feet.  Okinawa has some beautiful white sand beaches, but this one was rocky and silent, and those bits of metal were everywhere.

My father said nothing; but he stooped once to pick something from the debris.  When he opened his hand, he was holding an unspent bullet.

It was, he told me, a tracer round intended to light a night time landing.  I wanted to keep it, but he tossed it away, explaining that it might still go off, and was therefore dangerous.  We kept walking, once more in silence, looking down at the metal whose rough edges and hard lines had long since been eaten away by the sea.

Only a lot of years later was I able to guess what we were walking through and imagine what had been behind my father’s silence.

My father’s war had been a very personal one for basic survival.  It had begun in late 1941 in the Philippines with the ill-advised retreat to the Bataan peninsula and the starving nightmare of the Death March.  It had ended four years later with liberation from a POW camp in northern Japan.

Medals and promotions don’t normally accrue from such things—although I do have his Purple Heart. I know, as I know myself, that he would rather a thousand times have been in on this beach landing and in the deafening thick of battle than in the silent hellish depths of that POW camp, unable to fight, unable to act, wasting, waiting, dying by minutes and inches.

It’s some game, this thing called war.

LMJ 12.12.16



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October Surprise

emptylotThis lot has been empty for about a decade.  Once—sometime back before the Second World War—a small house was raised on it out of the miscellaneous materials that Depression Era construction was likely to entail.  Pieces of discarded railroad ties, random chunks of concrete and rock, even the odd tree stump, served as a foundation while pieces of wooden railroad cars covered the walls inside and out.  Necessity dictated an approach to getting shelter that would in time become chic with and much admired by folks like the readership (this sometimes includes me) of publications like Mother Earth News.

But I doubt that anyone, then, would’ve related much to the concept of creative scrounging as a job skill.  The business at hand was the critical, unglamorous one of getting yourself and anyone you cared about out of the elements and safely beyond the reach of the careless and the criminal.

But whoever the builders were, they also did what people do in even the most straited circumstances.  They planted flowers.  There are still, here and there, wisps of the non-hybrid German irises, mostly white, that are commonly called cemetery flags on this side of the Mason-Dixon Line.  They are unimposing but sweet with the light scent that irises have, and a welcome means of softening the many hard edges of a hardscrabble life.

Nothing else of the sort was added, as far as I could see, during the years when the house was crumbing toward a sad end.  A critical corner was turned two decades ago when the last owners, a young couple, went their separate ways due to the husband’s inability to relate to the concept of marital fidelity–especially as wrapped up in the dual jobs of being a husband and father.  He hung on briefly with the girlfriend who moved in the day after the wife and children left; then vanished to be succeeded by a series of increasingly questionable renters, many of whom attracted the attention of law enforcement. Finally the bulldozers came and left nothing but the concrete storm cellar, which had long since become a hatchery for toads and mosquitoes while sheltering a few grateful snakes.

The neighborhood got much quieter after that, and the asking price of the lot discouragedspiderlily3 new construction. The grass and a few trees were left pretty much to their own devices.  And then, following the summer’s last mowing—prompted, most likely, by a complaint from the city– a day in early October brought a surprise.

Lycoris radiata—a member of the amaryllis clan, also called Japanese spider lily—is known throughout much of the American South as a passalong plant.  The bulbs are seldom offered by nurseries, and pretty pricey when they are to be found.  It’s better, in good Southern tradition, to get freebies from the gardens of elderly kinfolk and like-minded strangers.  Or to rescue them from the sites of condemned buildings, as I have.

spiderlily1Once planted, they can linger, unattended and unsuspected, for years, since they are dormant and invisible most of the time.  It is only in late summer and early fall that they announce themselves, when the bare flower stalks appear suddenly, exploding almost overnight into what looks like a single wildly exotic,  bright red blossom.  In fact, the multiple flowers all bloom at once, and the show, consequently, lasts for only a few days.  Afterwards, dark green, strap-like leaves emerge to nourish the bulb after the great effort of blooming.

How this single bulb got where it is is a mystery of spiderlily2several parts.  It was growing near the tiny slab that once constituted a back porch for the vanished house, which makes sense.  But the last person who might’ve planted it is twenty years gone in the wake of her husband’s betrayal.  It must have happened, year after year, that the leaves needed to feed the bulb to blooming size were prematurely mowed down, stunting the bulb.  Only in this October of 2016, after so many disappointments—which could so easily have killed it– was it able at last to bloom.

I made a mental note to come back shortly with a sharpshooter and a pot to lift this hardy survivor and replant it in a more welcoming location.  But someone returned with a mower before I could; once more, there is no trace of it.  I can only wait and hope that it will emerge again to offer its small, brilliant testament to the rewards of resilience and persistence in the face of long-running, generally unwitting opposition–a lesson apt to be most appreciated on the other side of many experiences of the kind.

Because I’ve noticed that people generally have a hard time seeing, let alone appreciating, things–even some pretty fine things–when they show up where they aren’t looked for or expected.

LMJ 11.07.16



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There are a lot of definitions of what it is to be human.  The one that occurs to me at the moment is that of the creature that goes to a lot of trouble to make and collect stuff, but just as relentlessly loses the stuff it makes and collects.

undiesCase in point:  this pair of obviously new men’s grey Hains cotton briefs found at the foot of an oak tree in a local cemetery.   The dog, whose continuing need for undistracted exercise had brought me to wander amidst the stones, saw–more likely smelled –them first.

They probably told him way more than they did me—although it’s not too very hard to imagine how they came to be where I found them.  The weather had been pretty decent,  and the boneyard in question is agreeably isolated–but across the street from a high school.  Such a private, low rent venue would not go unnoticed in certain quarters.

I am more intrigued by other, more mysterious lost things.  A few months after those cematary-shoeundies were lost or left at the foot of that oak tree, this single black lady’s pump appeared about 20 feet away.  But much more interesting was this unintentional still life that evolved at the head of a hiking/biking trail over a period of several days.

bootThe boot came first.  It was one half of a pretty decent pair of lady’s cowboy boots, size smallish, and it was placed carefully where I found it, on a curb by the parking lot. A few days later, someone added the set of keys.  A few days after that, both items had vanished.

I don’t know how long the glasses lingered, and I somehow think they were missed more than either the keys or the boot.  Or for that matter the black pump or those naughty boy briefs.   Not much  point in keys, shoes, or underwear if you can’t see where you”re going.glasses-on-table

Collectively and individually, we leave such a trail of things behind us that you have to consider how much we are defined by those things and what we would be without them, from Pezz dispensers to Smartphones.  The snake that leaves its shed skin, the hummingbird that builds, uses, then abandons its jewel of a nest, is still essentially itself minus the skin, the nest.  But a naked, unadorned human is one of the nakedest things there is.  Minus artifacts—even the most primal artifacts of beads and body paint—there is nothing in our essential, outward design to suggest the enormous space behind our eyes and between our ears.

The making of stuff seems to serve us as a sort of overflow valve for a space unable to contain its potential.  Certain manifestations of that overflow provide the usually weekend entertainments of garage and estate sales, flea markets and swap meets.

Other things less fun, too.  Seen all at once (as I lately did  at what was once the home of a friend), spread helter-skelter out of the house that once contained it, the stuff generated by a failed marriage is a jangling testament to the ugly, tangled thing that love and hope can become when fear, disappointment, and betrayal mutate it into rage and hate.

Stuff gets lost.  So do a lot of other things.







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sandy1 001It’s not very often that you can be sure, by almost 100%, that you gave someone everything they could possibly have wanted. That you made them happy. That you gave them a good life.

That is what I’m telling myself, anyway. It’s the best I can do, as things stand. Sometimes you have to take comfort were you can find it.

Like the hobos of yore, needy critters have a knack for finding a dependable handout. I don’t know if they leave marks on the fence posts or there’s a part of the Deep Internet known only to the four-legged, but the word gets around. Sandy first came to me about six months ago. He was a decidedly ragged, fully grown tomcat whose lean and hungry look was underscored by that particular sadness and bewilderment that you see in dumped animals.

You learn to pick the lost and abandoned from the truly wild. Wild kitties—like the two small kittens who showed up here, minus their mother, about a week ago—hide at a glance. Like the possums and raccoons that also occasionally come panhandling, wild kitties raise paranoia to an art, the better to survive a world dense with enemies. Most often, you see only a tail tip as it disappears behind or under something. But abandoned pets usually float just out of reach, their hunger and their fear of yet another betrayal warring with their hope of not only a meal, but the recovery of the thing they’ve lost. They sandy2 001want to come home.

Sandy, his name suggested by the nondescript paleness of his yellow coat and eyes, fit the pattern precisely. He hung back for several months before trusting me to run a hand over his skinny, scabby frame. But his commitment and trust, once offered, were total. Whatever he had lost had come back to him in the shape of a middle-aged, perpetually harried human whose familiarity with dashed hopes and unanswered needs made the yearnings of a stray cat very comprehensible indeed.

Knowing the drill, I dutifully arranged the needed times and procedures at a vet’s, the treatment of hurts, the removal of parasites. As a temporary house guest confined post op to the bathroom, Sandy cheerfully basked in the attentions of whoever opened the door, rolled and purred as we went about our days, rejoiced in his recovered domesticity. When he was well and healed of everything, he happily rejoined my small crew of outdoor cats, contented to know that if he scratched at the screen, I’d usually find a minute to join him on the porch for a round of head and tummy rubs.  Along with steady meals, he wanted no more than that.

I’ll never know why he did what he seemingly never did after he came to me, left the safety of a fenced yard to cross a quiet street on a quiet morning. I missed him for breakfast and found him lying where the truck or whatever it was threw him, just a few feet from my driveway.

I never took any pictures of him, so I’ve had to move quickly to catch my memories with a distracted brush before they vanish, leaving only his name. It cost me very little of time or money to see that he did not die nameless or uncared for, hurt or sick or hungry or cold or lost. But even so, perhaps the positive balance of my karma now weighs a grain more in my favor—although I’d so much rather that Sandy was still with me, that I didn’t keep looking for him and rediscovering that he’s gone.sandy3 001

LMJ 7.1.16

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